Optimistic AC Milan supporters will tell you that defeat in Supercoppa Italiana does not matter, even against bitter rivals Inter, as the fixture is little more than a glorified friendly currently played in Saudi Arabia to boost revenues, but the 3-0 loss in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday will worry the rest of the fanbase.
The Rossoneri looked flat in the Middle East. Particularly in midfield, where Nicolo Barella gave Italy teammate Sandro Tonali a lesson in controlled aggressive and crisp interplay, which allowed former Milan star Hakan Calhanoglu space to create havoc just behind the Nerazzurri attack.
Last season, Milan looked a team greater than the sum of their parts as they clinched the Serie A title, but the cogs in that machine are no longer turning as smoothly as 12 months ago. However, while some of those 2021/22 champions are underperforming, players on the fringes on the first team have not been good enough when called upon.
The latter could not excuse the Rossoneri display on the Arabian Peninsula, though, with all but long-term absentee Mike Maignan available. Yet when Barella strolled into the box virtually unchallenged within 10 minutes and played a low, centred pass that Federico Dimarco finished, the defeat looked inevitable.
AC Milan on the slide
Since returning from the winter break and narrowly beating Salernitana 2-1, Milan have won none of their last three matches and, more importantly, looked as though they have lost the confidence in each other that took them to the top of Italian football last term.
Against AS Roma, a late collapse threw away a two-goal lead and two vital points as they try to chase down leaders Napoli. When back at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza three days later, they wasted the opportunity to build some confidence by exiting the Coppa Italia with a whimper to a solitary Torino goal. During their most recent 2-2 draw with Lecce, the Rossoneri were simply second best to the newly-promoted side.
The pitiful non-challenge by Tonali on Edin Dzeko shortly after going behind epitomised their current sluggishness and low confidence, allowing the ageing Bosnian to cut inside with ease and fire past Ciprian Tatarusanu. The midfielder then walked back into position with the look of a man who did not want to be there.
Inter were allowed to play the next 70 minutes at a walking pace, but even then Fikayo Tomori misjudged the bounce of a routine ball over the defence, which Lautaro Martinez finished expertly with the outside of his right foot.
Crucial period on the horizon
Individual mistakes will happen, but Pioli needs to lift the general malaise around the Milan camp before they face a Lazio side within touching distance of the Champions League places and a near-full Stadio Olimpico in the capital, and then a Sassuolo team fighting for their top-flight safety.
When the two Milanese giants face off on Matchday 21 at the beginning of February, it could spell the end of the Rossoneri’s hopes of retaining their crown and once again put defeat to their neighbours into perspective.